In my Imagination Soup Writers Homeschool Writing Curriculum, growing writers will be starting out writing personal narratives using children’s books as examples.
Personal narratives allow children to speak with experience and authority because they’re stories based on their real lives.
In my curriculum, as I did when I taught writing workshops in the school system, I show parents how to use excellent mentor texts like the books listed below to model for kids how published authors craft their own personal narratives.
Choose from these picture book and middle-grade book mentor texts to show your growing writers examples of good personal narrative mentor texts with sensory details, vivid verbs, small moments, and organization.
Personal Narrative Picture Books
Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco
Young Patricia recounts staying with her Babushka when a thunderstorm arrives Her Babushka takes Patricia around the farm to gather ingredients, counting to see how long in between the lightning and thunder, then they go inside to make a special cake, a Thunder Cake.
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Olemauan wants to learn to read and begs to go to the outsiders’ school. But it’s not what she expected. She’s treated with cruelty and forced to do endless chores yet her desire to learn remains. The nuns’ abuse doesn’t crush this brave girl’s spirit. “And like Alice, I was brave, clever, and as unyielding as the strong stone that sharpens an ulu. I finally knew this, like I knew many things, because now I could read.” Based on the true story of the author, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, her story shows the power of spirit and literacy to survive and overcome even the most horrible of circumstances.
Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon
Based on Jessica’s real-life when she was an adult, read how after her leg was amputated, she connected to a service dog named Rescue. Not only is this a sweet story of friendship and resiliency but it also models details that matter, inner dialogue, and parallel storytelling from both main characters’ perspectives.
Across the Bay by Carlos Aponte
Based on the author/illustrator’s childhood, this is a tender story about little Carlitos who leaves his family’s home to travel across the bay to San Juan and search for his father. His experiences give readers the flavors of Puerto Rico with the old men playing dominoes, a parade with singing and guitars, and kite flying near the castle. Tired from his unproductive search, a park ranger reminds Carlitos that his father will be forever in his memory whether he’s found or not. Later, Carlitos returns home to his mama, abuela, and cat.
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chien
Alan stutters when he talks yet fluently speaks without a stutter with animals. He develops a passion for animal welfare and conservation, wanting to use his voice to speak up for animals. In particular, he becomes passionate about jaguars and bravely uses his voice in Belize to make a case to save the jaguars. And his words persuade the government. The jaguars get a protected preserve. (Written in third person.)
How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion by Ashima Shiraishi, illustrated by Yao Xiao
Written by one of the world’s youngest and best climbers, Ashima shares her experiences with climbing difficult “problems” which is what climbers call the boulders they climb. It’s more abstract and metaphorical than I usually want in a mentor text but certainly is an #ownvoices personal narrative focusing on a growth mindset of perseverance and facing challenges with grit.
Tuesday Tucks Me In: The Loyal Bond between a Soldier and his Service Dog by Former Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan, USA with Bret Witter, photographs by Dan Dion
Luis experiences post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities. His service dog, Tuesday, helps Luis’ nightmares and balance as he walks down the subway stairs. This picture book follows a typical day in the life of Luis and Tuesday from breakfast to bedtime which doesn’t exemplify small moments.
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
Not necessarily a personal narrative but reads as if it is, you’ll want to cheer for this exuberant celebration of a boy’s infinite possibilities, and many ways of being. illustrated in bright colors and painty textures. It’s a book about black male joy and it’s a masterpiece of culture, writing, and art! If you want to teach children about metaphors and rich word choice, this is the book. “I’m the BOOM-BAP== BOOM-BOOM-BAP when the bass line thumps and the kick drum jumps. I’m the perfect beat, the perfect rhyme, keeping everything on point and always on time — but you already knew that.”
Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
I love how Nikki Grimes writes poetry that collectively makes a narrative story that could be used as a personal narrative example. This book of poems tells the story of a girl named Tiana who loves words. Her style is conversational, relatable, and made even more interesting with textured collage illustrations. “Pigeons masquerade as wildlife. They can’t fool me. We’re all city folk.” This book makes an inspirational, amazing mentor text to help children write about their own lives.
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier
The love between son and father is a beautiful thing in this story. Every morning, his father knock-knocks on the boy’s door and the boy pretends to be asleep. But one day, the father isn’t there. And he doesn’t come back. The boy misses his dad in all the moments of the day that they did together like making scrambled eggs and helping with homework. So he writes his dad a letter. The letter his dad writes him back from jail is filled with words of wisdom and love. “No longer will I be there to knock on your door, so you must learn to knock for yourself. Knock knock down the doors that I could not.” Heart-wrenching, beautiful, and hope-filled.
IslandBorn by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Lola longs to remember the island of her birthplace but she left the island as a baby and can’t remember. Lola interviews her family and friends, listening to their snap-shot, detailed stories of the island’s bats, music, agua de coco, heat, and the Devil Monster. Through their stories, she creates her own tapestry of island memories that will always be in her heart. Stunning illustrations explode in colorful exuberance on every page of this lovely picture book.
My Grandma and Me by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by Lindsey Yankey
Mina writes a beautiful, atmospheric tribute to her grandma in this story of growing up in Iran buying bread, playing, and going to prayers but mostly spending loving time with her grandma. The illustrations with intricate patterns and muted colors set a warm, comforting tone.
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela thinks her name is too long …until her father explains about each person she was named for — like Esperanza, Alma’s great-grandmother who hoped to travel. This helps Alma make a personal connection to each person she’s named for. With Esperanza, she says, “The world is so big! I want to go see it, Daddy!” Names are important. This story would be a wonderful way to talk with your child about not just your child’s name but the names in your family, too. Soft, muted colors give this story a nostalgic atmosphere.
Personal Narrative Middle-Grade Books
26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola
DePaola narrates one wild year in his life that starts with a hurricane. Filled with humor and charm, this is a Newbery Honor book.
My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen
Paulsen’s stories about his dogs show his deep respect and enduring love for each animal starting with Snowball in the Philippines and later, back in the United States with Ike, a hunting dog.
Note: Sensitive readers may not like the hunting stories in this book.
Knucklehead Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka
Growing up Scieszka was a WILD time. There’s quite a bit of potty humor in Scieszka’s hilarious musings on his childhood but the writing is excellent and captures personal narrative in short, digestible stories.
Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher
Ralph Fletcher is a respected writing teacher and author of writing pedagogy. His short stories from childhood show a large, close-knit family that gave him the foundation for his storytelling as an adult.
Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
It’s worth including this memoir of boyhood stories but I don’t highly recommend it because the writing isn’t up to Dahl’s usual zestiness.
Wink by Rob Harrell
A funny, standout cancer story based on the author’s own life… When Ross is diagnosed with a rare kind of tumor, he immediately starts radiation treatment. A goofy, kind-hearted radiation tech gets Ross interested in alternative punk music. In order to impress a girl, Ross asks the tech for guitar lessons. Turns out, the guitar and his new music, help Ross both express his frustrations and find his joy, leading to some surprising results — like an unexpected friend. (Note: Some language.)
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez (VERSE)
Margarita narrates scenes from her life in verse, her Cuban and American heritages. Beautiful and descriptive with relatable themes of feeling like an outsider and trying to understand your own identity.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen
It’s summer vacation and our 12-year old narrator (this is fictional but reads like memoir) needs to earn money. Which he does by starting a lawn mowing business. Not only that, he learns about investing his money and makes a lot more money than he could have imagined.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Hands-down this is one of the best life-changing books you’ll ever read. Narrated by Melody, we learn what it’s like to be trapped in a body with cerebral palsy that doesn’t allow her to speak or take care of herself. No one except her parents thinks that she’s smart. Until one day. She gets a chance to prove it using new technology. But that doesn’t solve all her problems. Her story is heartbreaking, real, and inspiring.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
On her 12th birthday, Zoe, a girl who loves to bake, discovers a letter to her from her incarcerated biological father, Marcus. She decides to write him back, even daring to ask him about the murder he’s in jail for — did he really do it? Marcus writes to Zoe that he’s innocent and he can prove it which sets Zoe on a quest to find out the truth for herself, even if her mom and dad forbid it. She enlists the help of her Grandma and her best friend, Trevor. You won’t be able to put down this winsome story with a heroine you can’t help but adore; a story that illuminates social justice with themes of family, friendship, and love.
Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The autobiography of a kid by Jerry Spinelli (ages 11+)
Spinelli shares stories from his teen years that helped him become the author and storyteller he is today.
I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (VERSE)
In this personal narrative memoir, Thanhha reveals the overwhelm of immigrating from Vietnam to the American south in the 1970s, a completely different culture and language. Despite feeling turned inside out, Hà resiliently figures out life in the U.S., despite the many challenges she faces. I loved this book –it’s written with such an authentic voice. Plus, it gives readers a first-hand look at an immigrant experience. Winner of the National Book Award and Newbery Honor.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (VERSE)
Written in verse, this is the author’s own story about growing up as an African-American girl in the south and the north during the Civil Rights movement. It’s a powerful introduction to this time period and the issues of race in the United States since it’s told through the eyes of a child. National Book Award finalist.
The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw (ages 11+)
In this beautifully-written, eye-opening story, we follow the life of Yuriko, a Japanese girl who lives in Hiroshima during World War II. Initially, her life revolves around drama with her family and friends just like a typical child’s life in any country. But, in this recounting of Burkinshaw’s mother’s actual experience, her life is torn apart when the atomic bomb is dropped. Not to mention that it comes as a shock to learn that Japan has been losing the war. Yuriko’s life becomes a nightmare of survival and endurance.